Part stand-up, part roast, part prognosticator, and always the analyst, Dave Aronberg dove right in as he faced a decidedly Republican crowd in his appearance at Flagler Tiger Bay today: “Whenever a Democrat comes up to speak to Flagler County, it feels like an away game. And I even went deep into my closet found a red tie and I thought everyone would be wearing red ties. I think I’m the only one, so I tried. Now the goal here today is for me to be honest, and interesting and provocative, but not so honest, interesting and provocative as to get suspended by this governor.”
A big collective breath’s uptake in the crowd. “Oh, that hit deep,” he said, not finished. “Sheriff Staly, I’m just kidding,” Aronberg told the sheriff, who sat at at a front table flanked by two county judges. “I know he has his finger on the speed dial to Governor DeSantis right now.” He had more: “So Sheriff Staly, MSNBC is a network on TV that is–on the dial, it’s near Fox News, but you have to keep going in Flagler County.”
Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County, is one of Florida’s rare remaining influential and charismatic Democrats in an increasingly red state, one of its 20 duly elected state attorneys but one of only 19 currently serving. The 20th, Andrew Warren of Hillsborough County, was removed from office in early August by gubernatorial fiat after Warren defended abortion rights and gender-affirming medical care, but not in any cases before him.
Warren’s suspension didn’t come up during Aronberg’s Q&A, but he candidly addressed the issue in an interview afterward, speaking in Warren’s defense: “I believe Andrew should not have been suspended,” Aronberg said. “According to the governor he’s being suspended for a few reasons. Number one, he was not enforcing the law, and yet his policies show otherwise. And number two, it was his signing on to those letters on transgender surgeries and abortion. On the transgender surgery, there is no law in Florida on that. So you can’t suspend someone for not enforcing a non-existent law.”
The abortion matter “is a little murkier,” because a Florida bill that would ban abortions past 15 weeks is tied up in court and “previous attempts to restrict abortion rights have been thrown out because of the state constitution. So he was expressing his opinion about a matter that is not before him. There was no case beforehand. So I think that he will win in federal court at the district court level.” Beyond that, on the more conservative 11th Circuit Court of Appeals? “I’m not sure,” Aronberg said. “But I do support his first amendment rights,” he said, “and I disagree I disagree with the decision to suspend him and I do support him”
Aronberg didn’t see the governor’s move as having a chilling effect on his own freedoms on the talk circuit (he appears frequently before civic groups, on CNN and on MSNBC). He had already appeared at a Flagler Tiger Bay event, if by zoom during Covid. He’s been the elected State Attorney in Palm Beach County since 2012, after serving in the Florida Senate eight years.
If the Tiger Bay crowd expected any in-your-face controversy from one of the state’s more polished and genial prosecutors, Aronberg did not provide it even as he touched on some of the most delicate issues of the political season and its ideological minefields: he knew his crowd. He stuck to gentle razzing and standard, unsurprising predictions about the coming election or possible indictments. He talked of controversies without being controversial, making his points on sharper-edged issues with analytical rigor while letting humor and grace neutralize any possibility of indignant rebuttals. In line with Tiger Bay’s mission, his talk was forceful and opinionated, but shorn of belligerence.
His predictions? Democrats will hold on to a majority of maybe one seat in the U.S. Senate, even with Marco Rubio beating Val Demings, as he expects. Republicans will take the House majority, but by a slimmer margin than they originally hoped, perhaps 15 seats. In Florida, DeSantis will be re-elected, and ” the Democrats are in danger of becoming a minority in the House, where it’s a super-majority of Republicans,” he said: absent at least a third of the seat, the minority party cannot block legislation.
He did not have kind words about the Florida Democratic Party (nor do the few remaining elected Democrats in Flagler have kind words for their local party, which they see as dysfunctional), at least not by implication: one of the reasons Barack Obama won the state twice, Aronberg said, is because he imported his own team to do it, rather than rely on Florida Democrats. Meanwhile, the Republicans’ fundraising advantage in the state “is not even close” (“How many Charlie Crist commercials have you seen on TV?” he asked), and Republicans have gerrymandered the map. “I think it’s it’s awful, but that’s the reality,” he said.
Regan Hansen, who won the day’s contest for best question (it’s a tradition at Tiger Bay lunches), asked Aronberg what he expected the Legislature to do in light of the jury’s verdict earlier this month against the death penalty regarding Nicholas Cruz, the murderer of 17 people at Parkland High School in 2018. Aronberg did not answer as a Republican or a Democratic prosecutor so much as an American one: the United States remains alone among industrial nations, with Japan’s exception, to still kill people in the state’s name.
“If you can’t get the death penalty for someone who slaughtered 17 innocents, most of them children, then when does it apply?” Aronberg said. But if there is to be legislative debate, it will be over whether to revert back to allowing non-unanimous verdicts in death penalty cases. Until 2016, Florida was among three states that allowed non-unanimous verdicts. That year the Florida Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional.
The Legislature rewrote the law to requite unanimity. Three jurors out of 12 in the Parkland verdict were against killing Cruz. Had even one been against, Cruz’s life would have also been spared. The 2022 Florida Supreme Court is far more to the right than was the 2017 court, and the likelihood of such a reversal getting upheld is high: last year the court ruled that unanimity was not necessary. But the law still calls for unanimity. “So the Legislature may review that,” Aronberg said.
Aronberg hadn’t gone entirely red. “I personally think it should be unanimous,” he said. But he would support a different change in law. At death penalty-phase trials, the prosecution gives its closing arguments first, then the defense has the final word (unlike all other criminal trials, when the prosecution gets to go again a second time). “Would things have been different if the state had the final say? Maybe. But I think that’s one change I would definitely support.” By then he was speaking strictly as a prosecutor, to the dismay of Matthew Metz, the public defender for the seventh Judicial Circuit (the judicial circuit that includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam). Metz also sat at a table in front of Aronberg, but at a somewhat less scarlet table.
Speaking as a prosecutor, Aronberg did not see much strength in a case against former President Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection, because proving Trump’s active instigation and overcoming his free speech rights would be too difficult. “Inference” is not enough. “Prosecutors don’t like to charge on inferences. If we charge on inferences, Matt and his team just blow us away in court,” Aronberg said, referring to Metz, “because we got to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did it. We hate inferences. We like direct proof.”
Trump is likelier to face prosecution for obstruction and conspiracy to defraud the United States in connection with the documents Trump took to at Mar-a-Lago from the White House. Even then, Aronberg said, “is it in the government’s interest to be the first prosecutor in the history of our country to prosecute a former president? And to get there you have to show something that is really damaging to our national security. If the documents matter is about Kim Jong-il’s love letters, it’s not going to happen. You’re not going to see a prosecution. But if it’s about nuclear information that could put our national security at serious risk, then I think you’re going to see it.”
Staly had, in the interest of what he called “being fair and balanced,” asked about Hunter Biden and prosecution.
“I can’t make a prediction whether or not he will be charged,” Aronberg said. “I think the tax issue is probably the most likely because as you know, whoever you are, you screw up on the taxes that’s a cut and dry.” And if it does happen, he said, “it will happen after the midterms.” Aronberg did not address all the other matters surrounding Hunter Biden, including what New York magazine recently dubbed “The Sordid Saga of Hunter Biden’s Laptop.” (Clarification: an earlier version of this article paraphrasing Aronberg may have left the incorrect impression that Aronberg was predicting an indictment.)
“That’s how they got Al Capone,” the sheriff said of the tax angle.
Numerous elected officials were in attendance but, curiously, neither R.J. Larizza, the State Attorney for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, nor any of his prosecutors attended.